Chapter 1: 0: Fool
They who had been SEES and were just now remembering it ran forward as one. Laughter sprang out; they simply enjoyed the occasion of being alive. They had won. They were victorious. And they were all here to celebrate.
Minato smiled at them and then closed his eyes.
Aigis continued to run her hands through his hair as the rest of SEES drew closer. It was all she could do.
Minato smiled at them.
The boy, their expressionless leader who jealously guarded his thoughts and emotions behind a blank mask, had smiled at them.
Junpei was the first to notice as he said, "Oi, Minato, I know you're a lazy bum, but what are you doing here sleeping? You've been going to bed early this past month!"
Yukari grew worried. "H-Hey, Minato? I know you're a heavy sleeper, but are you all right?"
Nothing but what should have been the steady rise and fall of his chest... except there wasn't even that.
"Minato-senpai?" Ken queried, his voice wavering.
Akihiko immediately dropped to his knees and put his ear next to Minato's mouth. His face paled abruptly. "He's not breathing! Aigis, help me lay him down!"
Aigis quickly moved to do just that as Yukari let out a small scream and dropped to her knees. Junpei looked like someone had just socked him in the gut, while Fuuka had her hands over her mouth, quietly shaking her head in denial. Ken just froze, eyes widening and body trembling.
Mitsuru simply stared for a moment as Akihiko performed CPR before she began to bark out orders. "Yamagishi, go to the entrance and direct the paramedics up here! Answer no questions! Amada, Yukari, calm down or move out! Iori, Aigis—" she broke off as Aigis turned her head and simply looked at her. "—Iori, guard the door and make sure no one gets in here. Aigis, help Akihiko with CPR." When no one moved save for Akihiko's desperate resuscitation attempts, she barked out, "Move!"
As everyone scrambled away, Mitsuru ignored the tears burning in her own eyes and whipped out her cell phone to call some Kirijo doctors to handle what was wrong.
Their joyous reunion drained away into harsh reality.
They had won. They were victorious.
...and they knew, finally, the cost of that victory.
Chapter 2: I: Magician
When the class valedictorian, the school's top boxer, and three juniors all disappear right after the valedictorian's address, Kenji knew it would cause quite a scene. Add to that the conspicuous absence of the star of the juniors along with the weird transfer, the seven of whom created one of the most infamous and gossip-worthy gatherings of the entire school, and Kenji also knew that something was terribly wrong, especially because said group had not seemed quite so close after the end of January and all of the weird things that had happened around then.
Teachers went around trying to calm students and get graduation back in order, but Kenji could concentrate even less than he had before. All he could feel was this cold stone in the pit of his stomach, and that spurred him to quietly slip out in the commotion. He took in deep, gulping breaths and tried to calm his nerves, but it didn't really help, even as he quietly began to wander the halls.
What helped even less was the sight of Fuuka Yamagishi running down the stairs with tears in her eyes. That cold stone? It dropped when he heard her faint, pleading chant: "Minato, Minato."
Kenji was about a second away from running after her but thought better of it. Instead, raced ran up the stairs at full blast. There was pretty much only one place she could have come from. The cold fear quickly morphed into a burning dread that spread past his stomach and upwards into his heart. At the top of the stairs, he came face-to-face with Junpei, who placed his arm across the entrance to the rooftop.
"Junpei, the hell—?"
"I can't let you by, Kenji." Junpei's voice was solemn, perhaps as solemn as it had been back at the end of November, when he couldn't talk to anyone.
"Minato's there, isn't he?" Kenji all but shouted at him. "I need to—"
For a moment, a pained look crossed Junpei's face, mixed in with suspiciously wet eyes as he said, "You can't see him."
Kenji could have sworn time stopped when realization set in. Without even realizing it, he was reaching forward and grabbing Junpei by the front of his jacket. "No," was the only thing he could say.
No, it was impossible. He had to be wrong, he had to be.
And then the burn reached his head and whipped him into an almighty blaze of fury. "What the hell did you all do to him?" Images flashed through his head of times that Minato would limp to school, or moved weirdly, or couldn't even eat properly because of something that had to do with his stomach. Of the times he couldn't even reach him on his cell, or just flinch from even the most delicate of friendly punches. Of the times he looked so dead tired that Kenji saw him sleep through their lectures and couldn't fault him for it.
"We didn't do anything!" Junpei screamed back.
"You're lying! You bastard, you're lying!"
"We tried! We tried our best! But we couldn't fucking do anything at all and he—"
There were all of the little things that, after he became confident about himself, he could see in others, Minato in particular. He knew the problems were connected to this group, this group of seven who, despite all their differences, stayed together. But he'd let it go because, when he pushed, Minato only shook his head as they talked over ramen and fingered the choker he always wore.
Minato was the guy who had his back through the entire debacle with Emiri. Kenji swore that he'd have his back in return, and during that whole mess at the end of January, Kenji remembered (now remembered, why only now?) that he had prayed for Minato's safety and given him all his strength, the strength that Minato himself had taught him. These were all people who should have been supporting him when he could not. So why was it that only he was gone?
A thousand recriminations passed through his eyes and found their mark in Junpei. All the things he'd held back because of Minato, he loosed now in the silence. Junpei was his friend, yes, but he was far closer to Minato, had learned so much from him, that he couldn't help this fiery anger.
"Fuck!" he screamed and drew his arm back. His fist collided with Junpei's face in a satisfying rush of pain. "Why couldn't you do anything?"
Kenji's head snapped back as Junpei's fist (strong, so very strong, but why the hell couldn't that strength help Minato?) found its mark on his cheek, and he slammed into the wall from the force. But Kenji was back on his feet in a second, shouting his grievances and hurling insults as they brawled on the ground.
"You couldn't—! We—I trusted you, god damn it!" Kenji yelled with a clumsy right hook that Junpei caught and twisted away.
"We thought he was fine!" Junpei snarled. "I wish I could've done more too, but he didn't give us a damn choice!"
One arm twisted behind his back, Kenji could only sit on the ground with his nose bleeding and head pounding. But he knew, god damn it, he knew that that was Minato's way. He desperately tried to hold onto that anger, wanted to feel that blaze, but all he could feel was the dawning despair seeping into him as he tried to muffle his sobs.
Despite only being here a year, Minato had wormed his way into his heart and nestled himself closer than most. For all Kenji's total averageness, Minato had befriended him, had stuck by him, and now...
Kenji began to cry with the knowledge that one of his best friends was dead. Tears mixed in with the blood seeping from his nose as he found that, yes, he could hurt worse than finding out his girlfriend was engaged to another man.
Junpei's comforting arm around his shoulder in a manly hug was not quite what he was looking for, but it was a small comfort all the same.
What use was all of the self-awareness he gained when the person he learned it from was gone?
Chapter 3: II: Priestess
It took all of Fuuka's willpower to not cry. She wasn't sure that she could do this. Today was supposed to be their happy day—they all finally, finally remembered their shared purpose and were supposed to celebrate. They were supposed to enjoy the future they'd built together through blood, sweat, and tears.
They shouldn't be... They shouldn't be without him.
Not on the day of their greatest celebration when they finally, truly, knew they had won.
Fuuka's hand remained over her mouth when she finally made it to the school's entrance. If it remained there, then the words couldn't escape her. She'd lowered it once, when she was running down the stairs, but her chant of, "Minato," only served to cause her emotions to fray. Fuuka had quickly covered her mouth after.
She needed something—anything—to focus on. And so she pulled out something that she kept carefully hidden away, that only one person knew she had. The pair to the headphones she'd created for Minato settled around her ears, and his music flowed into her.
With a tension-releasing sigh, Fuuka let the music invade and took comfort in the fast beat. Fuuka had never quite been one for music; she usually only paid attention to what played on the radio. Minato, however, loved music with a passion he showed little else and, though for the most part his headphones and his personal space were sacrosanct, every so often he'd pull her close and slip them over her head. It was never the same song twice, and eventually Fuuka purchased her own mp3 player to deposit the songs Minato would recommend.
Minato truly was an eclectic person; much like the shifting personas she felt him use, he never found himself one genre. He flittered from the cheerful lilt of pop to the evocative sound of Western classical, never once showing a preference and yet never denying the strengths and weaknesses of each. One in particular stood out to her, and it was this song which sang into her heart.
"Burn my dread," she whispered to herself.
Out of all the songs Minato regularly switched in and out of his mp3 player, Fuuka knew that this song remained forever on it. As such, it never left Fuuka's either. Action in the face of futility—Fuuka had never quite understood Minato's fascination with the song, but now, having stood and faced Nyx, Fuuka thought she might understand the appeal.
She thought they would all die—Juno told her what they were up against. Power so strong that, even as she relayed information on the Avatar, Fuuka could sense the almighty power that dwelled behind it. Only she had known the full truth—the Harbinger had but a fraction of Nyx's full power and even if they could manage to strike this fragment down, it would mean nothing in the end. But still she stood by her friends, hoping for a path that would take them beyond this trial.
And there had been one.
She only wished it had been one without the sacrifice of the boy she loved.
Fuuka loved Minato in her own, quiet way. Fuuka knew she wasn't the only one; she could not be blind when her very power was to see, but she accepted it nonetheless as an inevitability. It was hard not to love Minato even a little, and it was even harder not to love him a lot. Whether it was in his comforting words or his understanding silences, Minato drew people to him and made them shine that much brighter.
Though the resolution in her heart that awoke Juno from Lucia stemmed from Natsuki and SEES, Fuuka credited her true blossoming to Minato. The way he encouraged her to play to her strengths, to not let her interests decay simply because they weren't "feminine" enough, became words for her to live by. So what if she liked tinkering? So what if she lived for taking things apart and putting them back together? If that was what she liked, then it was what she'd do. That was the resolve he gave her—to turn her hidden strengths into confidence and pride.
She wanted to make a tech club to let her talents truly shine. She wanted him to join it with her, so that she could teach him her strengths and give back what he had given her.
Fuuka wanted him by her side.
This future that they made... The only reason why she wanted to live in such a future was because Minato had been by her. For so long, she had feared the future the most. All of its mysteries, like a fog that not even Juno could pierce—she had been terrified of stumbling blind and deaf into what lay ahead. She tried to mold herself into what people said she should be in order to better weather the storm to come.
When Minato was with her, when he held her hand in a rare display of emotion and affection, Fuuka thought that she wouldn't mind walking into such a future, now sure of herself and her place.
Without him, though, she found the same fear all over again. The same indecision. The same pain.
She only had that courage because Minato was by her side.
Without him, what future awaited her? What future could now be there?
Fuuka wasn't sure she had the strength anymore.
Feeling the tears flow down her clenched eyes, Fuuka pressed the heels of her palms into them. Opening her eyes fully once more, she looked out into the street and saw the coming ambulance, its siren blocked by the music still drumming through her. As she tucked away her headphones, Fuuka swallowed her sorrow and dried her tears as the ambulance stopped and paramedics exited the vehicle. She nestled it right alongside that same pain and fear in her heart, and she told herself she would deal with it later.
With her voice emptier than it had been in months, Fuuka directed the paramedics up to the rooftop.
Her face was perfectly blank.
Chapter 4: III: Empress
As soon as Yamagishi was out of sight, Mitsuru turned back to her phone. Pacing, pacing, ever-pacing, she quickly patched through to some of the Kirijo doctors she retained. Their purpose had evaded her during the intervening month, but with her memories, she now realized their purpose.
She would wring every bit of use of them.
Mitsuru tried her best to ignore Akihiko's and Aigis's desperate resuscitation attempts. She tried to ignore the fact that Amada and Yukari gravitated toward each other in their shared grief. She even tried to ignore the fact that one of her closest friends, Akihiko, was holding back tears in a way that reminded her of the death of one of her other closest friends.
"Ice," she told herself. "Ice."
For years, that had been her motto. She was a woman who was to enter the business world, daughter of the Kirijo Group's head. She was a frontline warrior on the battle against the Shadows, a weapon to be wielded for her father's sake. In the end, ice had been easier to summon than steel, and though she eventually tempered herself into the blade she was now, ice remained her companion.
The warmth she only allowed herself to feel was with her father, when the two of them softened just for each other.
Until she'd lost that warmth and then discovered it anew for Minato, who had been her rock in her father's death.
Minato had been a counterpoint to herself. She ruled with an icy sword, only ever budging when it was with Akihiko and Shinjiro, and even then only to a point. On the other hand, he'd been SEES's leader with a markedly different style than her own. He'd been quiet but attentive, and he'd had a subtle warmth that comforted all who talked to him, even without losing that razor-sharp edge which had been why she'd trusted him first in her stead and then as her leader.
Mitsuru had learned a lot from him. From observing and from talking, she'd learned to be something more than ice and steel.
She learned warmth.
Mitsuru knew she would never have the same kind of leadership he did. It just wasn't part of her personality, in which silence and quiet openness drew out secrets.
But she learned to lead with compassion in the times where she could afford it. No longer was she the Ice Queen of Gekkoukan High; some of that same compassion had influenced her everyday actions and made those who worked with and under her all the more loyal.
And she owed her blossoming as a leader to Minato. To the kindnesses he instilled, to the examples he left.
When she finally let him in, Mitsuru found someone so fascinating. He was quiet, yes, but he had a charm which drew in so many people. Simply being around him gave her new views, new experiences, until she found her horizons and her thoughts maturing even more.
She even found a new love.
She found some things that she would not sacrifice. She swore to forge her own path in the world.
Even if Minato wouldn't be by her side for it, even if his path differed from hers, all of the things he'd taught her, over the food at all those different restaurants and in the various places she had never truly explored before--they were the things she would take with her into the future.
Yukari had turned Penthesilea into Artemisia. Mitsuru would never forget the strength Yukari had given her, the ability to walk into the future despite her fears, and she would always owe Yukari an unspoken debt for it.
Minato had let her soar.
The freedom she sought on her motorcycle now sat nestled in her heart, enabling her to run into the future. If she closed her eyes, she could feel the wind in her hair and the endless road in front of her. The future was open if she willed it. All she needed to do was reach out and grab it with her own two hands.
Ice and warmth and steel could all coexist in the same person, as long as that person could handle it.
Mitsuru could handle it.
All of it.
But it all paled at the possible loss of Minato.
Seeing Minato slowly go pale. Seeing Akihiko and Aigis fail at their trials.
It made those lessons harder to grasp. Her warmth became buried in the blizzard.
It was easier to fall into old habits.
It was far easier to summon ice to her veins than to remember the warmth that Minato had taught her. It was the frost in her that lashed out at whoever came near, the steel which girded her as she fought to make her will be known.
Everything would be taken care of.
Minato would only have the best. The best of anything, everything.
He deserved it after all he had given.
So Mitsuru watched with icy eyes as the paramedics burst onto the roof, as they took over Akihiko's and Aigis's attempts at reviving Minato with simple efficiency. She directed Amada and Yukari to head off to the side, and then she told Akihiko to aid Iori in making sure that the paramedics weren't disturbed.
As Minato was lifted onto a stretcher and rushed down the stairs to the ambulance, Mitsuru thought she heard something fall to the ground.
She looked down and noticed that his keys had slipped out of his pocket. As she bent to pick it up, she froze.
Mitsuru zeroed in on the key on its chain.
She remembered the promise she'd made him.
But she locked it inside of her as she picked it up, her precious motorcycle key (but not as precious as the boy she'd given it to) clenched between her fingers.
All of the ice in her, however, couldn't stop the tears which welled in her eyes as she started speaking again into her phone.
Chapter 5: IV: Emperor
Old habits died hard, it seemed.
Though retiring from the Student Council, Hidetoshi was still a trusted student. He may have lost that one teacher's favor, but the general opinion of him was still high, perhaps higher than ever before, and so during the entire commotion when Kirijo-senpai and others left, Hidetoshi was one of those tasked with crowd control. Though some students slipped out, they managed to get the graduation back into some semblance of order, and as it finished up, Hidetoshi stood at one of the exits, a stalwart guard.
It was the best he could do, keeping a stern but kind watch over it all. Catching those who tried to slip out with a firm but gentle hand or allowing those who left to sneak back in without reprimand.
Kindness to temper the discipline. Respect alongside the authority.
Things Hidetoshi were learning, ever so slow and ever so hard, but ever so important as well.
Minato had guided him along this path, and Hidetoshi would do him proud.
His position as guard, however, allowed him to see when paramedics—(paramedics? Hidetoshi repeated in his head with alarm)—rushed by, stretcher in hand. A fellow member of the Disciplinary Committee turned to him in alarm, but Hidetoshi shook his head.
Their job now was to keep the panic from erupting. Graduation was a solemn affair, and Hidetoshi would respect that, but keeping order was far more important right now. No one would gain from chaos, and if he himself wavered, if he moved to see what was happening, others would follow his lead.
If nothing else, he wanted to leave the paramedics undisturbed in their work. A crowd of student gawkers would do little to aid that. He hoped that the first-year students weren't being a bother.
Unfortunately, it caused a more than a little commotion when the stretcher came back, this time loaded with the body of Minato Arisato, one of the most popular second-years, one of Hidetoshi's friends, and someone that his fellow Committee member had a crush on. Before she could do more than open her mouth, Hidetoshi held her back with a kind but unyielding grip.
"We're the Disciplinary Committee," he urgently whispered. "We're needed more here."
"But Odagiri-kun, Arisato—"
"—is in the best hands possible with the paramedics," he cut in. "You can find out what happened later, but what we need to do right now is to make sure that everything is undisturbed so that they can do their work."
The girl took in a deep breath, and Hidetoshi was gratified to see the steel his words brought forth in her. "Of course, Odagiri-kun. I'm sorry."
"It's fine," Hidetoshi said softly. "I'm worried too," he admitted.
She nodded her acknowledgment with a soft smile before she turned straight ahead.
Hidetoshi promised himself that he would get answers, but he had a duty to fulfill first.
But once that duty was over... He had a duty to his fellow students and Committee members as well to figure out what was going on.
Kindness and respect, Hidetoshi repeated to himself. Leadership augmented by compassion.
Give and take.
So when everything was over, when the graduating seniors had filed out, Hidetoshi intended to find Kirijo-senpai. She was one of the most prominent figures of the school and close to Minato as well. He planned on leveraging his status as a member of the Student Council to try and glean some information from her, but someone else caught him first.
"Sanada-senpai," Hidetoshi acknowledged.
"You're Hidetoshi Odagiri, correct?" Sanada asked, which Hidetoshi confirmed with a sharp nod. "Is there a place that we can talk?"
"...I believe that the roof would be the emptiest at the moment?"
Sanada winced and shook his head. "No, no, that's probably a bad place to be right now."
"Then the pool should be empty."
"Yeah, that's probably best."
The two of them walked in silence, Sanada, quiet and despondent, while Hidetoshi carefully masked his slowly growing anxiety under a placid surface. When they reached the empty pool, Sanada shook his head and turned to Hidetoshi, who was surprised to see the remnants of tears in his eyes.
"Mitsuru trusts you," Sanada said. "She says you're a valued member of the Student Council and that you have the trust of the second-years... So I think you're the best one that can do this."
"Minato's in the hospital right now," he said, and Hidetoshi's stomach dropped. "We don't know... We don't know if he'll make it. I know he is with the second-years, and I know spoke about you a lot, so if you could do some rumor control, Mitsuru would appreciate it very much."
"What's... Do you know what's wrong with him?" Hidetoshi asked. For once, Hidetoshi cursed the harsh exterior he cultivated, as he couldn't even inject even a fraction of the compassion or worry running through him right now into his words. His entire body felt numb, paralyzed, and even his voice felt distant. It was the same thing he felt oh so long ago when his father was imprisoned, repeated here and now.
"He collapsed today, and that's all we know," Sanada continued. "If you could keep some of the wilder theories in check, we'd be grateful."
"I... I can do that," Hidetoshi said.
A task. A task to protect not just Minato but the student body. Something to do, something that he could change. Not standing by the wayside but doing something about the situation. His mind latched onto that fact, and he embraced it.
Leadership through kindness.
Protecting Minato's reputation through the truth. Dampening the rumors, letting the truth prevail, bringing order to the chaos. That was important.
So very important.
"And... When they were taking him away, he dropped this." Sanada revealed a lighter, the talisman that he'd given Minato all that time ago, a reminder of why he'd chosen the path to teaching that he did. Hidetoshi accepted it with numb fingers, holding it close. "He told me the story behind it. Minato was so proud of you back then. I think that you're probably the best place it could be right now."
"Thank you, Sanada-senpai," Hidetoshi said hoarsely. "If it's all right, I'll take my leave?"
"Go ahead," Sanada said simply.
"Thank you," Hidetoshi replied and left. He kept his composure for as long as he could, fingers clenched tightly around the cool metal of the lighter, until he managed to slip into one of the bathrooms.
He then let out an explosive sigh and dropped a few tears.
Minato was alive. He may have collapsed, but he wasn't dead. He wasn't dead.
He could hold onto that hope. He could hold onto the hope that he would make it through in spite of the pain in his heart, in spite of the cold knowledge spreading through him.
He needed to be strong through. Strength enough to support himself and everyone else.
Kirijo-senpai and Sanada-senpai were depending on him. The students were depending on him.
Minato believed in him.
If he couldn't even do this, how could he ever consider guiding anyone else in the future?
The compassion to lead. The kindness to guide.
That was what he learned with the smoking incident.
That was what Minato taught him.
That was what this lighter symbolized.
Hidetoshi girded himself and lifted his head high. With a clear, strong, caring gaze, Hidetoshi looked into the mirror.
He would do this, for everyone who depended on him to be the port in the storm, to be the beacon guiding people.
That was the leadership he learned.
He would do Minato proud.
Bunkichi was getting old, he knew. His bones and joints ached, and it became harder to move with each passing week. Nowadays, though, Bunkichi found that he minded the passage of time even less than before. He felt at peace with the onset of his mortality.
As long as he had Mitsuko, of course.
Gekkoukan High's graduation was yesterday, and in the past, the changing of seasons and the passage of knowledge as young adults headed out into the world filled him with melancholy. Now, he was more all right with it. Now, it meant that his son's legacy—the students he so loved, his knowledge and generosity—passed on to a new generation to spread evermore.
Bunkichi was old enough to know that nothing lasted forever, but he was also old enough to wish that change didn't happen so quickly. He was better able to let go with the thought that his son may be watching over his students even now—that his spirit, if not his memory, lived on.
He knew who he could thank for this too, who he and Mitsuko could give gratitude for allowing them to move forward. That kind, quiet boy who carefully let them step into the future, to value knowledge and those who came after rather than selfishness and the remnants of before.
Bunkichi owed a lot to Minato for what he did for them. It'd been a while since Minato last visited. He didn't begrudge the poor boy though—he'd looked so tired the last time he'd seen him. Maybe he would cheer up over a melon bread.
Bunkichi greeted the day with a smile, puttering around his and Mitsuko's store as Mitsuko worked in the back.
And then he all but panicked when a young girl came in, obviously distraught though doing her best to hide it. "Young lady, are you all right? I... I have some dried persimmons!"
Minato always loved getting snacks from them; they never failed to cheer him up no matter his mood.
"I'm... I'm fine, Kitamura-san," the girl said. Propriety said that Bunkichi had to accept that answer, no matter how untrue it was. "I... I just... I just had to tell you, because I know how close Minato-kun is to you."
"What happened?" Bunkichi asked over the sudden sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Minato-kun's been hospitalized. He collapsed during the graduation ceremony," the girl said, and Bunkichi's sinking feeling crystalized into fear.
No, no, this couldn't be happening. This couldn't be true. This wasn't real, right?
Minato, their precious Minato, couldn't—
Bunkichi was startled out of his thoughts when his wife let out a loud gasp and dropped the books she was holding.
"Mitsuko!" Bunkichi shouted and raced toward his wife, damning his stiff knees the entire time.
This wasn't real. This wasn't true.
Mitsuko felt her breaths come in short pants and her chest tighten as her world narrowed.
No, no, no. Not again. It couldn't happen again.
Minato was so bright. He was quiet, yes, and while initially it had been because of shyness and hesitation, Mitsuko had watched him grow into self-confidence, where he only spoke what needed to be said and could be understood even without words. The way he moved and the way he acted were things that Mitsuko had not seen in a very long time and had thought to be missing from most of the young students who passed through their store. He had so much charisma around him that he naturally gathered people, and Mitsuko wondered what he would do with that kind of pull even as she and her husband joined those who were just beginning to circle him.
She needn't have feared, however. Above all, Minato was kind. His heart shined so bright and warm that she felt blessed to know him.
Minato was one of a rare breed nowadays.
In some corner of her heart, Mitsuko admitted that Minato reminded her so much of her son. It was in his kindness, his willingness to help others, and in the way he aided she and her beloved in the bookstore. It was in his silences and his rare words that rekindled her love for the newest generation.
To lose Minato would be like losing her son again and repeat the backslide that had her spurning the newest generation in favor of conserving the past.
Mitsuko was no longer young, and she should have been used to losses by now...
"Mitsuko, Mitsuko," she realized Bunkichi, her dear Bunkichi, was saying by her side.
"I'm... I'm all right," she said.
"He's still alive," Bunkichi said. "He's still alive. He can still make it."
"Right, right," Mitsuko said, trying to regain some of her equilibrium. "He's still alive."
"I... I will take my leave then," the girl said.
"Stop, please. You look like you need a moment," Mitsuko found herself saying. "Would you like some tea?"
"I, I don't mean to impose," the girl said hesitantly.
"It is no imposition. Please take a seat while I prepare some snacks." Mitsuko stepped into the back room, where she quickly heated some tea. She stuttered a bit when she discovered the dried persimmons (why was it always persimmons?) before forcing herself to gather and arrange them on a platter.
As she shuffled out, Mitsuko said, "Do you know that Minato-kun loves persimmons?"
"Really?" the girl said.
"He gobbles them up whenever he comes," Mitsuko said fondly as Bunkichi nodded with affection. "He's always snacking on something—"
And as she prattled on, Mitsuko wished from the deepest, deepest part of her that Minato would be all right, that he could get better. Right now, however, it was her job—her and her dear Bunkichi's—to help those who came after them get past this.
For Minato and for the memory of her son, who would have done the same thing.
Bunkichi clasped hands with her, and she smiled.
Notes: Sorry, not one of my best. I had trouble getting into their heads.
Tick tock, tick tock.
If Yukari had her bow on her, she'd probably shoot the damn clock off the wall. It was driving her nuts, the way it echoed in the silent room. She really should get up and stretch her legs. Go for a walk, get some air, and clear her mind.
She also knew that she'd continue sitting where she was, because she would never forgive herself if something happened while she was gone. Thus, she resigned herself to waiting in this seat, surrounded by the rest of her former (current?) teammates.
Her fingers found her cell phone and began fiddling with it. She flipped it open and closed, the clack of its plastic hinges a welcome respite from the clock's gears, no matter how the sound drew Akihiko's glare.
Yukari hated the waiting game. She hated being utterly helpless, like she was on that day when all she could do was watch and pray as Minato rose to confront Nyx. She spent so long trying to be strong, and she only just learned what it meant to walk into the future with her head held high. She could carry the past with her without it being a burden.
Her questing fingers found the strap that now adorned her phone. Attached at the end was a small version of Pink Argus from one of the Featherman shows; Yukari wasn't sure which one, but she could ask Ken if she really wanted to know.
Yukari remembered the way that Minato would take the couch with Ken to watch Featherman on Sunday, and sometimes, how she'd join them. She didn't see the appeal all that much; it was pretty childish, but it wasn't hard to be infected by enthusiasm from two boys who weren't often so outgoing. Minato had gifted her the new strap not after she'd given him her old one.
To her, giving Minato her original strap had been multilayered, but the most important reason was that it signified her decision to go forward. She carried her father with her always--Isis was a symbol of the resolve she gained from him, and her winds, an ever-present reminder of that strength. The passing of the strap was an acknowledgement that she had more than her father now, that he would still be there even if she didn't hold onto him with such desperation.
All of her fears, all of her emotions--they were now things she shared with Minato. The new strap wasn't a replacement for her old one but something that nestled alongside it on her phone and in her heart.
Minato was good at things like that. Silent support most of the time, which morphed into sharp confidence when necessary. For someone who looked so apathetic, his empathy always surprised her, but it was always welcome. A feather-light touch that gave her didn't dictate her future but guided her to the resolution she needed.
She'd made her choice. She'd decided to be firm about what she wanted, and Minato encouraged her the entire way.
Now it was like being left behind all over again.
She was trying oh so hard to look forward in the future, to stay steady on the path to her decision, but it was difficult. It was more difficult than ever.
Everyone was closing themselves off. Perhaps one of the greatest things that Minato had done for them was bring them together as more than just a group of disparate members. They'd been forged in the fires of the underworld, yes, but he'd been the one who bred them into the team they were (had been). She grew alongside everyone, from the girl who couldn't even muster the courage to use her Evoker to the woman who could call the winds with barely a thought.
Now, she felt so utterly alone.
Ken and Koromaru, the latter barred from the premises, were waiting at the dorm due to the late hour, with Fuuka as their quiet escort. Akihiko only paused in his steps to glance at the clock, grimace, and continue on. Junpei was as silent as he had been after Chidori's death. Mitsuru looked like she was back to the Ice Queen of Gekkoukan High, and Aigis...
Something in Yukari's gut twisted at the sight of Aigis as still as a statue.
She had been the one to be by his side before this uncertain future. She'd been there when the rest of them forgot. And if... and if this turned out to be the last time they could be with him, then she'd be the one to hear his last words.
That it was Aigis and...
Yukari carefully shelved those thoughts. It wasn't the time or place for them, though old bitterness welled up inside.
Right now, she could see choices arrayed before her, what paths she could take. She knew which one she wanted. She placed her hopes onto the one that had her side by side with those she loved, but...
The pragmatic part of her could not deny that it might not come to pass. If she had to, she could ride the winds high into the future. Running far and hard, rushing forward without looking back, into the future they fought for so that she could create a world that deserved life. She would throw herself forward, never stopping, because if she stopped she'd have to think, and if she had to think, her steps would falter. She could not afford to waste the opportunity they'd been given.
She'd much rather do it with people by her side. It would be easier with everyone else.
But, as the doctor stepped out and Mitsuru rose to greet her, Yukari could read the future on their faces.
It looked like her choice had been made for her.
End Notes: Sorry for the delay. I'd intended to have the conclusion in the fourteenth chapter, but the storyline flowed a little better like this. It took Persona Q to help break the block I had writing Yukari; she's so freaking complex that, even now, I don't feel like I've done her justice no matter how many times I revisit all the games she's in and how many times I write this.